I guess we have all heard about the current hoo-hah over Harry Reid’s perfectly sensible remarks about Obama, and how this has become a minor scandal, with some comparing his remarks to Trent Lott’s support for Strom Thurmond’s segregationist Dixiecrat campaign for the presidency in 1948, which is of course asinine. I have two remarks to make. First, the remarks in question come from what is perhaps the least useful genre of political reportage ever invented, the unsourced trolling through the detritus of recent events, of the sort Bob Woodward has perfected, the book that gives the illusion that you are in the room with the policy makers when they are making real decisions. And illusions are what they provide.Though I don’t doubt that future historians will find the occasional stray remark to be useful, I think they provide a navel’s eye view of the world, from the vantage of campaign staffers with scores to settle, and who think that campaign staffers are the real story of the campaign. Such sleazy compilations of meretricious gossip, that consistently eschew any bigger issues, add little or nothing to the understanding of politics, and just further debases an already debased political process.
But what really has interested me is the anger about Reid called Obama a Negro. Negro is archaic, and hasn’t been an accepted term for persons of African ancestry living in the United States since about 1970 or so. Those of us who work in African American history know this, and live with it, but it complicates our task. When you are working, as I currently am, on black history of the 1930s and 1940s, and when every black person you quote uses the term Negro, you are constantly paraphrasing, and when someone says “Negroes will demand their equal rights” and you don’t want to quote it, you write “he called for blacks to demand their equal rights,” which is not quite saying the same thing. It always seem a bit sad, when refering to someone who proudly called himself or herself a Negro, we are not allowed to honor their chosen designation.
Negro was never a slur. Black nationalists like Marcus Garvey, of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, used it freely, and the big linguistic campaign by blacks in the mid-century was to ensure the capitalization of Negro in print. (The capitalization of black is far less consistent than Negro, in large part because capitalizing Black would seem to call for a balancing capitalization of White, which many deem ugly.)
Is it offensive to use an archaic term, that was never offensive, to refer to a racial or ethnic group? Probably more weird than offensive, like calling a Jew a Hebrew, an Israelite, or person of Mosaic persuasion. (Actually calling someone a Jew, as opposed to calling someone Jewish, strikes me as a bit archaic as well.) Negro survives as an adjective, in such terms as Negro spirituals, but otherwise has left the living language. This is a small price to pay for the tremendous positive change wrought by the upheavals of the 1960s, but I guess I wish those of us who write in the field could occasionally use Negro as a substitute for black or African American, especially when writing of a time when it was ubiquitous. But linguistic conventions are remorseless, and spare no one. In 1986 Ralph Ellison dedicated his second book of essays, Going to the Territory, somewhat cryptically, to “that vanished tribe into which I was born, the American Negroes.” I think I know what he means, and one of the things it means, as Harry Reid’s comments demonstrates, is that American may have a black president, but it will never have a Negro one.